Political gravity overtakes Glenn

MUCH was learned from the presidential candidacy of John Glenn, the fifth Democrat to abandon the race, just as it was returning to his native Midwest. We learned, again, that celebrity status need not translate into political strength. As much a folk hero as anyone on the national scene, the former Marine pilot and astronaut from a small town in central Ohio labored through third-place finishes to worse in the first contests. He found no alchemy to transmute fame into votes.

In national surveys he had often done as well as Mondale against Reagan, or better. But Glenn, with his moderate, patriotic, apple-pie appeal, has always done better in general election contests than in Democratic primaries. In Ohio, he failed twice to win his party's Senate nomination, in 1964 and 1970. Big-city Democrats in Ohio, factory workers and minorities, did not take easily to his small-town style.

Glenn's 1984 nomination troubles were foreshadowed by the tepid response to his 1976 convention speech. Later one Democratic analyst observed: ''The Democratic delegates love to congratulate themselves for their appreciation of minorities rather than for their love of virtues associated with the majority.''

Glenn at several points after he announced for '84 seemed about to live up to his White House candidate potential. Criticized for his wooden rhetoric, he could suddenly emerge animated, light-hearted. But he never mastered one leadership fundamental - attracting the best talent. His campaign routinely tapped the fourth and fifth levels in state organizations. He never positioned himself to become the alternative to Mondale. Mondale himself claimed the party's traditional center. And Gary Hart has seized the contrasting front-runner position by evoking the emotionalism, mannerisms, and idealism of the 1960s Jack Kennedy era, while promising new ideas for the '80s.

It often takes more than one run to make it to the White House. If Glenn, despite his pilot's penchant for setting his own course, can reach out to tap the pluralist tendencies in his party, he need not put his presidential ambitions away in his scrapbook forever.

The Glenn clan can still boast one of the 1984 campaign's greatest successes - childhood sweetheart and wife Annie's triumph over a speech impediment. Seeing her campaign bravely and smoothly for John highlighted the inner human drama of politics that delegate numbers, hoopla, and exit polls too readily obscure.

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